Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Lacking Standards Of Philosophical Proof

Recently, I've reached that point in life that I know lots of us have struggled with: one day, you just wake up and say to yourself, "I know my multimillion dollar bank account might seem impressive, but I think I want more out of life than just a few million dollars. What I'd like would be more money. Much more". Unfortunately, the only way to get more money is to do this thing called "work" at a place called a "job", and these jobs aren't always the easiest thing to find - especially the cushy ones - in what I'm told is a down economy. Currently, my backup plan has been to become a professor in case that lucrative career as a rockstar doesn't pan out the way I keep hoping it will. 

                                           Unfortunately, working outside of the home means I'll have less time to spend entertaining my piles of cash. .

I've been doing well and feeling at home in various schools for almost my entire life, so I've not seen much point in leaving the warmth of the academic womb. However, I've recently been assured that my odds of securing such a position in one as a long-term career are probably somewhere between "not going to happen" and "never going to happen". So, half-full kind of guy that I am, I've decided to busy myself with pointing out why many people who already have these positions don't deserve them. With any luck, some universities may take notice and clear up some room in their budgets. Today, I'll again be turning my eye on the philosophy department. Michael Austin recently wrote this horrible piece over at Psychology Today about why we should reject moral relativism in favor of moral realism - the idea that there are objective moral truths out there to be discovered, like physical constants. Before taking his arguments apart, I'd like to stress that this man actually has a paid position at a university, and I feel the odds are good he makes more money than you. Now that that's out of the way, onto the fun part.
First, consider that one powerful argument in favor of moral realism involves pointing out certain objective moral truths. For example, "Cruelty for its own sake is wrong," "Torturing people for fun is wrong (as is rape, genocide, and racism)," "Compassion is a virtue," and "Parents ought to care for their children." A bit of thought here, and one can produce quite a list. If you are really a moral relativist, then you have to reject all of the above claims. And this an undesirable position to occupy, both philosophically and personally.
Translation: it's socially unacceptable to not agree with my views. It's a proof via threat of ostracism. What Austin attempts to slip by there is the premise that you cannot both think something is morally unacceptable to you without thinking it's morally unacceptable objectively. Rephrasing the example in the context of language allows us to see the flaw quickly: "You cannot think that the word "sex" refers to that thing you're really bad at without also thinking that the pattern of sounds that make up the word has some objective meaning which could never mean anything else". I'm perfectly capable of affirming the first proposition while denying the second. The word "sex" could have easily meant any number of things, or nothing at all, it just happens to refer to a certain thing for certain people. On the same note, I can both say "I find torturing kittens unacceptable" while realizing my statement is perfectly subjective. His argument is not what I would call a "powerful" one, though Austin seems to think it is.

                                          It wasn't the first time that philosophy rolled off my unsatisfied body and promptly fell asleep, pleased with itself.

Moving on:
 Second, consider a flaw in one of the arguments given on behalf of moral relativism. Some argue that given the extent of disagreement about moral issues, it follows that there are no objective moral truths...But there is a fact of the matter, even if we don't know what it is, or fail to agree about it. Similarly for morality, or any other subject. Mere disagreement, however widespread, does not entail that there is no truth about that subject.   
It is a bad argument to say that just because there is disagreement there is no fact of the matter. However, that gives us no reason to either accept moral realism or reject moral relativism; it just gives us grounds to reject that particular argument. Similarly, Austin's suggestion that there is definitely a fact of the matter in any subject - or morality specifically - isn't a good argument. In fact, it's not even an argument; it's an assertion. Personal tastes - such as what music sounds good, what food is delicious, and what deviant sexual acts are fun - are often the subject of disagreement and need not have an objective fact of the matter.

If Austin thinks disagreement isn't an argument against moral realism, he should probably not think that agreement is an argument for moral realism. Unfortunately for us, he does:
There are some moral values that societies share, because they are necessary for any society to continue to exist. We need to value human life and truth-telling, for example. Without these values, without prohibitions on murder and lying, a given society will ultimately crumble. I would add that there is another reason why we often get the impression that there is more moral disagreement than is in fact the case. The attention of the media is directed at the controversial moral issues, rather than those that are more settled. Debates about abortion, same-sex marriage, and the like get airtime, but there is no reason to have a debate about whether or not parents should care for the basic needs of their children, whether it is right for pharmacists to dilute medications in order to make more profit, or whether courage is a virtue.    
If most people agreed that the Sun went around Earth, that would in no way imply it was true. It's almost amazing how he can point out that an argument is bad, then turn around and use an identical argument in the next sentence thinking it's a killer point. Granted, if people were constantly stealing from and killing each other - that is, more than they do now - society probably wouldn't fare too well. What the existence of society has to do with whether or not morality is objective, I can't tell you. From these three points, Austin gives himself a congratulatory pat on the back, feeling confident that we can reject moral relativism and accept moral realism. With standards of proof that loose, philosophy could probably give birth and not even notice.

                                                                                   Congratulations! It's a really bad idea.

I'd be curious to see how Austin would deal with the species questions: are humans the only species with morality; do all animals have a sense of morality, social or otherwise; if they don't, and morality is objective, why not? Again, the question seems silly if you apply the underlying logic to certain other domains, like food preferences: is human waste a good source of nutrients? The answer to that question depends on what species you're talking about. There's no objective quality of our waste products that either has the inherent property of nutrition or non-nutrition.

Did I mention Austin is a professor? It's worth bearing in mind that someone who makes arguments that bad is actually being paid to work in a department dedicated to making and assessing arguments - in a down economy, no less. Even Psychology Today is paying him for his blogging services, I'm assuming. Certainly makes you wonder about the quality of candidates who didn't get hired.


  1. There are objective moral truths out there to be discovered...its just that humans will find them disgusting.

  2. Things argued for with relatively bad arguments can in fact be entirely true, he tentatively said.